No 2134 Posted by fw, January 3, 2018
“The time is now for a mass movement of people saying ‘We want something different.’ We actually know what we need to do; it’s a question of how we do it. I’m interested in helping to create the means, however unevenly it may unfold. … In ten years, I’d like to see a multi-scale network of cutting edge entities and activities that collectively show how a new economy—indeed, a new society—might take shape. Catalysts of change may emerge gradually and unknowingly, depending on circumstance. We may not recognize, much less control, the forces of systemic change, but we can help create the preconditions for their crystallization. Such an exercise requires continuous adaptation. It is like sailing: you know your destination, the winds and the tides keep changing, and you must tack to adjust to real world conditions. Integrated, systemic thinking is urgently needed in response to multiple, in some cases existential, threats.” —Stewart Wallis, The Great Transition
Stewart Wallis is currently leading a major new initiative to create a global “new economics movement” called WE All (Well-Being Economy Alliance). Before that, he was the Executive Director of the UK’s New Economics Foundation (NEF) from 2003 to 2016.
Below is an abridged repost of the text of an interview with Stewart Wallis. Guided by interviewer Allen White’s questions, Wallis defined the key attributes of “the new economy” and talked of how his work at NEF prepared him for his new challenge at WE ALL. Wallis is convinced that agents of change must create “a coherent, compelling story that articulates not only what’s wrong, but what’s needed—in the form of hopeful, plausible visions.”
Wallis is absolutely right when he says, “it’s a question of how we do it.” And he is right again when acknowledging that the process of change may, to paraphrase, “unfold unevenly.”
Wallis’ change strategy dovetails nicely with the efforts of Tim Jackson’s major contribution Prosperity without Growth and the publication of Prof. Charles Berber’s new book Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance, featured in my January 1, 2018 post titled: Fragmented US resistance movements fail to understand the nature of the system they’re up against.
Their common enemy is time and the corporatocracy, which controls the levers of power, money, and the press. Sadly, the odds seem stacked against a passive citizenry and their desperate agents of change in search of process that will take them to the promised land — a mass movement.
To read the text of the complete interview with Stewart Wallis on The Great Transition’s website, click on the following linked title.
Each day, we can see new evidence that the economy fails to serve people or planet. Stewart Wallis, former executive director of the New Economics Foundation, speaks with Tellus Senior Fellow Allen White about how to galvanize action for a new economy.
~ Question by Allen White — How did your time in business help shape your worldview?
“When profits become paramount, any social purpose is compromised”
Although I admired the intelligence of my colleagues, at the end of the day, what mattered to the firm were the interests of the shareholders, most of whom had inherited their wealth. I found myself getting angrier and angrier with that system. I always believed that the purpose of a business should be to do something worthwhile in the world, but when profits become paramount, any social purpose is compromised. Even in a company where many of the shareholders are family owners, the primacy of profits (and shareholder value) persisted. After years of wrestling with a system to which I harbored fundamental objections, I was ready to return to international development. I had remarried, and my children were older, enabling me to become International Director of Oxfam.
~ And did this offer the purpose-driven work you craved?
Poverty and suffering limit the attention given to the systemic problems at the root of such conditions
The rewards of my work at Oxfam were substantial, but so were the nagging doubts. Our focus on the effects of poverty and suffering limited the attention we could pay to the systemic problems at the root of such conditions, particularly the economic system that was fundamentally immune to the policy changes we advocated. The focus on symptoms rather than causes would not achieve the necessary transformative change. Thus, when the opportunity to head the New Economics Foundation (NEF) arose, I took it.
~ Before we get into your work at NEF, can you talk a bit about the idea of the “new economy”? How would you define its key attributes?
The goal of the “new economy is to meet humanity’s needs within Earth’s ecological limits
The goal of the new economy is to meet the needs of all human beings while operating within ecological limits. It seeks to maximize the well-being of all species, human and other. Its proponents believe that economics is embedded in, and dependent on, the Earth’s ecosystems. They reject the concept of homo economicus—the notion that humans are self-serving, dispassionate individuals—and instead focus on the reality that we are adaptive, social creatures. Such a new economy rejects the goal of endless growth; indeed, it is agnostic about growth, focusing instead on designs and practices that are regenerative rather than extractive. This framework contains a spiritual element as well, defining the economy as a vehicle for enabling humans to grow and realize their full humanity. A new economy, of course, needs a new economics—a better foundation for explaining our current predicament and analyzing and creating policy. This is where NEF came in.
~ What aspirations did you bring to NEF, especially regarding “systemic change”?
Wallis’ 2 initial aims for NEF: new survival strategy; enhanced impact in deprived UK communities
NEF was about a decade old when I joined. It had already achieved some impressive successes, but taking the organization to the next level would require more human and financial resources. So the first aspiration was survival. Our strategy here was to create a consultancy that would apply NEF research in the real world, while generating an income stream for the organization.
The second aspiration was to enhance our impact. We created about 800 microbusinesses in some of the most deprived communities in the UK. Our theory of change involved working with communities to test new economy ideas on the ground, positioning them as working examples of what is possible and how to make it happen.
NEF helped to convince UK government to adopt “well-being” as a measure of progress
We were among a handful of organizations that convinced the UK government to adopt well-being as a measure of progress. This seminal moment challenged the hegemony of GDP as the preeminent measurement of prosperity. Further, we helped advance community tax relief and community development finance organizations, offering an alternative to mainstream finance. Over the years, NEF affected virtually every sector of the economy via policy, practice, or both.
NEF is pushing for a 21-hour, three-day workweek
NEF became one of the largest and most respected think tanks in the UK, an organization at the vanguard of innovative economics. We didn’t shy away from major debates, for example, over our proposal for a 21-hour/three-day workweek. At first, many people scoffed at the idea, but it has since moved from the fringe to the imaginable to the plausible. We tried to think ahead, to conceive and invent a different world.
Despite UK’s adoption of “well-being”, dethroning GDP has proven elusive
Notwithstanding these significant successes, we were falling short of our aspirations for system change. We were adherents of Peter Drucker’s adage “What gets measured gets done.” The UK government’s adoption of well-being as a metric was a headline achievement. We hoped that this might be the start of the dethroning of GDP and, more importantly, of learning from earlier, major societal transformations. But this aspect of our work remained elusive.
~ What were the underlying causes of this shortcoming?
The 2008 financial crisis may have helped to divert attention from other system change initiatives
We genuinely believed that a group of people who really believed in system change, had a plausible vision based on rigorous research, and implemented model projects on the ground, could begin to make a difference. Instead, we learned these were necessary but not sufficient conditions for catalyzing the change we seek. On top of this, timing—external events such as the financial crisis—diverted attention from structural changes to rescue and restoration efforts.
~ Let’s talk about your new initiative, the Well-Being Economy Alliance (WE All). What inspired its creation, and how does it fit within the wider array of social change initiatives?
System change efforts in the 90s failed because of the absence of a coherent power base
WE All has its roots in deliberations at NEF [New Economics Foundation].
For change to occur, the old narrative needed to weaken, and new power bases had to emerge. Signs of both appeared in the 1990s with the rise of progressive movements in the UK and the US, but were hobbled by the absence of a coherent power base:
Change agents must create “a coherent, compelling story that articulates not only what’s wrong, but what’s needed—in the form of hopeful, plausible visions”
Notwithstanding many laudable efforts, we have lacked a coherent, compelling story that articulates not only what’s wrong, but what’s needed—in the form of hopeful, plausible visions. I don’t believe that the current version of new economics is coherent in either theory or practice. Worthy concepts and practices abound, but collectively lack the unity that would help to expand adoption and impact. The lack of a narrative and absence of a new power base further stymie progress. Thus far, however, network building and conferences have yet to crystallize into a cohesive power base and strategy.
~ What do you mean by “narrative,” and what role do narrative shifts play in your theory of change?
A narrative is critically important to galvanizing change because creates common ground among disparate actors. I am passionate about developing a shared worldview that translates into a unifying story that can support systems change.
Wallis’s inspiring keynote conference address last year triggered the launch of “an integrated initiative for a new global economy movement”
In a keynote address at a conference in Colorado last May, I called for a global new economics movement, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Alliances at the event decided to consolidate their efforts, and several individuals contributed seed funding to launch an integrated initiative for a new global economy movement. Since then, many other kindred groups have connected to the process, including GTI. I am serving as interim chair of the convening group.
A multi-pronged structure will “combine bottom-up leadership with top-down guidance”
A multi-pronged structure is emerging, with civil society, governments, city and regional entities, businesses, faith groups, and academics as collaborators acting together to codify and advance a new economics rooted in justice and well-being. We envision each actor serving the larger vision of system change in its own way, building on a shared narrative, a range of on-the-ground stories, and common principles. The structure will combine bottom-up leadership with top-down guidance. While each part progresses, we are planning a large, international gathering in 2019 to launch the next wave of cooperation and action for the budding alliance.
~ What is the best-case scenario for WE All in the coming years?
Current system is taking us towards instability, mass unemployment, and ecological breakdown
I believe we have reached a turning point in planetary history. In the past, many societies and cultures have fallen because of resource overreach—most notably the Roman Empire. But globally, we’ve never faced planetary limits in the way we do now. The current system is untenable, and a future of instability, mass unemployment, and ecological breakdown lurks on the horizon.
“The time is now for a mass movement of people saying ‘We want something different.’”
In today’s evolving world, economic, demographic, and ecological tectonic plates are colliding. We don’t have the luxury to procrastinate and hope for reversal of these ominous shifts. The time is now for a mass movement of people saying “We want something different.” We actually know what we need to do; it’s a question of how we do it. I’m interested in helping to create the means, however unevenly it may unfold.
A super-organization is not the answer
It can’t simply be a new super-organization. There must be a way of involving individuals of all backgrounds and at all scales. How do we link animated individuals to each other and to organizations at the vanguard of change? This is the great challenge in the years ahead.
Our 10-year vision — network of entities and activities to show how a new economy, a new society, can take shape
In ten years, I’d like to see a multi-scale network of cutting edge entities and activities that collectively show how a new economy—indeed, a new society—might take shape. Catalysts of change may emerge gradually and unknowingly, depending on circumstance. We may not recognize, much less control, the forces of systemic change, but we can help create the preconditions for their crystallization. Such an exercise requires continuous adaptation. It is like sailing: you know your destination, the winds and the tides keep changing, and you must tack to adjust to real world conditions.
Integrated, systemic thinking is urgently needed in response to multiple, in some cases existential, threats.
~ As you know, the Great Transition Initiative embraces a broad vision of civilizational change, identifying a supranational “global citizens movement” as a critical change agent in this transformation. How do you see WE All and GTI aligning in the context of this wider effort?
Above all, we need to create “a narrative and vocabulary that touch the heart as much as the head”
We humans have much more in common than most people assume, unable to see beyond contemporary divisiveness in so many parts of the world. Our common humanity provides the foundation for a global citizens movement. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which remains a truly universal statement of core human values, is a case in point, and the same will apply to a new economy rooted in inclusiveness and justice.
We need a narrative and vocabulary that touch the heart as much as the head. “Sustainability” does not capture the richness and expansiveness of the necessary transformation. For the marginalized, undervalued, and disillusioned, we need to understand, envision, and speak in ways that resonate with their anxieties and offer them hope for a better world. If we can talk about those things, and people feel they are heard, I think most will be open to welcoming the stranger, the other, the refugee. They will feel open to looking after the planet. Whether in coal country in the UK or a favela in Brazil, dispossession and anger must be met with plausible visions of future well-being. Such visions must acknowledge that globalization has been a story of benefits accruing to the few at the expense of the many. The alternative story must offer ways to rectify these disparities, or the emergence of fortress societies visible today will only accelerate in the coming decades.
A vanguard of change must emerge, tell a coherent story, and coalesce as a coherent power base. This is what is needed to achieve the systemic shifts essential to human thriving in the coming decades.
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